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The Authority of Authenticity

an essay by Gene Marshall

And when Jesus finished these sayings, the crowds were astonished at his teaching. For he taught them as one who had authority, and not as their scribes. Matthew 7:28-29

Like Jesus, the scribes were religious teachers, but they based their teaching on the written words of the heritage. The meaning of the above passage is that Jesus spoke with an inward type of authority unlike the scribes who spoke with the objective authority of the traditions. Today we might say that Jesus spoke with the authority of authenticity while the scribes spoke with the authority of their Bibles, their religious groups, their "pastors," their "Pope," their favorite theologians and philosophical teachers.

Authoritative religion has injured and offended many of us. The extent of this is so great that many of us have rejected almost entirely Judaism, Christianity, the Bible, the Koran, or any other objective authority. Often the basic intuition behind such rejections is correct: anything that does not make sense in terms of my own experience of life is an imposition. It is meaninglessness crammed down my throat.

We may also intuit that those who tolerate the imposition of outside authority are hungering for security, hungering for someone else to tell them how to live their lives so that they do not have to take responsibility for discovering truth for themselves.

Jesus apparently had discovered truth for himself and therefore spoke from an interior certainty that gave him the ability to reinterpret the heritage, interpret the future, and say something relevant to each and every moment by moment happening of life.

Many people today reject the authority of authenticity along with scribal authority. They don’t see the difference between the two. They feel that anyone who speaks strongly and certainly is imposing some alien truth upon them. In other words, many, if not most, people today are relativists. They believe that in the arena of religion and ethics, no one has authority. There are just opinions—your opinions, my opinions, and the next person’s opinions. Furthermore, this very popular view claims that one opinion is just as good as the next opinion. Everyone has the right to their own opinion. There is no authority, except someone’s opinion. Thus there is no way to challenge anyone to change their opinion, for everyone can say: "My opinion is good enough; my opinion is just as good as any other opinion."

But such thoroughgoing relativism was not the view of Jesus. He spoke with authority, with the authority of authenticity. He interrupted people’s opinions with teachings aimed at allowing his listeners to see for themselves that their own opinions were foolish.

Jesus was Not a Relativist

Let us take a look at some of the New Testament stories that depict Jesus as an exemplar of this strange authority of authenticity.

In one story, a person rushes up to Jesus and says, "I want to follow you but first I must go bury my father." Jesus does not say, "I understand, family duties are quite important; you have a right to your opinion." Rather Jesus says, "Let the dead bury the dead; you need to come and follow me."

In another story a person comes up to Jesus and says, "I will follow you wherever you go." Jesus does not say, "Thank you for your enthusiasm. I share your opinion that this is a good cause." Rather he says, "Foxes have their dens and birds have their nests, but a Messianic human has no place to lay his or her head." Jesus saw through the naivete in that person’s enthusiasm. Jesus was not trapped by naive praise. He simply spoke to what he saw as the truth of the encounter. Jesus spoke with the authority of authenticity.

Jesus’ own disciples were not immune to having their opinions contradicted. In the very center of Mark’s gospel, Jesus tells his disciples what to expect on the journey down to Jerusalem. He says bluntly that he is going to be rejected by the leaders, captured, and put to death. Peter says, "No, this cannot happen to you." Jesus does not say, "Thank you, Peter, for your concern. You are entitled to your opinion. I understand that it is comforting for you to believe that the Messianic human will always be safe." Rather, Jesus rebuked Peter, "Away with you, Satan. You are thinking as finite humans think, not as the Infinite God thinks."

In story after story, Jesus cuts through all naivete, moralism and sentimentality and challenges the central life-understanding of the person encountered. Here is one last story.

A women in the crowd calls out, "Oh, what a blessing for a woman to have brought you into the world and nursed you." Jesus does not reply, "Thank you for your strong sentiment of affirmation." Nor does Jesus deny the truth in what she said. Here is his reply: "Yes, but a far greater blessing to hear the word of God and obey it." Jesus cuts through the shallowness of her understanding of who he is and what he is about. He makes it clear in one sharp reply that it is relatively unimportant to be some good person’s mother. What is more important is to hear for yourself, whether you are a man or a woman, what is being said to you by the Infinite Silence in this very moment of time. And not only to hear what is said but to act accordingly.

In other words, don’t wait around hoping to be some great child’s mother. Get going with your own life today, now, immediately. Jesus spoke with authority, the authority of authenticity.

These stories from the Synoptic Gospels paint an unswerving picture of how the gospel writers remembered and pictured the exemplary human being. The exemplary human speaks with authority, not with the authority of the tradition- bound scribes, but with the inward authority of knowing what you actually know about your life and the lives of those about you.

Opposing Contemporary Scribal Authority

Many contemporary, conservative Christians defend themselves against the address of the above scriptures by saying that Jesus was God, but we are only human. Jesus could speak with authority, but we can’t. They say that we have to rely on the authority of Jesus—that is, on the authority of the Bible. This view represents the same type of authority that the scribes represented in Jesus’ day. Jesus was fighting against scribal authority. And Jesus embodied the authority of authenticity not for himself only, but for all of us as well. Paul certainly spoke with the authority of authenticity. All the gospel writers did too. The whole New Testament embodies a new attitude toward the authority of tradition. In the New Testament, the Old Testament tradition is used to support the authority of authenticity. The old tradition was searched for support for the authority of authenticity. The prophets are revered because they spoke with the authority of authenticity. Moses is revered because he spoke with the authority of authenticity. In other words, the New Testament claims that the Jesus-type of authority does not contradict the older tradition; rather Jesus’ type of authority is an embodiment of the same type of authority that filled Moses and the prophets.

And this same authority of authenticity can be embodied by you and me as well. Jesus was a human being just like us. If the authority of authenticity was part of his godliness, such godliness is a godliness that we too can enter. So let us consider what it would mean for us to embody the authority of authenticity. It means that we would always be speaking from our own interior experience and never simply repeating phrases we have only rationally learned. It means that we would have the inward confidence and courage to challenge scribal authority wherever we encounter it.

Perhaps we can illustrate this confidence by considering what our relations might be with the conservative Christian forces of our times. How might we respond to members of the Christian Coalition or their Republican representatives in the House of Representatives when they spout out mean-spirited moralisms which they defend with biblical authority? We might say, speaking with the Jesus-type of authority, that Jesus spent his entire life fighting against such mean-spirited moralism. We might say that Jesus was crucified by mean-spirited moralists very similar to those who dominate modern Christianity. We might point out that it was Jesus’ unrelenting attack on mean-spirited moralism that led to his death. We might point out that Jesus considered these moralistic religious opinions so deadly to the people of Israel that he considered it worthwhile to risk his life opposing them. We might say that if mean-spirited moralists are going to continue to dominate contemporary Christian practice, it is going to be over our dead bodies. That is what it might mean to speak with the authority of authenticity.

Opposing the View of the No-Authority Relativists

Perhaps those of us who are willing to embody Jesus’ authority of authenticity have an even tougher conflict with those who argue that in matters of religion and ethics there is no authority at all. Here are some typical words spoken by these no-authority relativists, "One religious opinion is as good as another. Why get upset over conservative Christians or Moslem fundamentalists or atheists, or secular humanists or any other religious opinion? Let a thousand opinions coexist in peace. No religious opinion has all the answers. I cannot say that my opinions are better than other people’s opinions. This is what love means: to tolerate whatever opinion my neighbor has, to listen to him, and to respect his opinion."

This position is difficult to effectively oppose because it embodies a modicum of truth. Love does mean respecting the other person and his or her opinion-creating capabilities. The authority of authenticity agrees with the relativists that cramming my opinions down other people’s throats is the wrong style. Cramming is the style of the scribal authoritarians, not the style that expresses the authority of authenticity. Nevertheless, the relativists are fundamentally wrong. Every opinion is not of equal value. Some opinions express the actualities of life better than others. Respecting people does not mean denying this truth. Respecting people means entering into conflict with their opinions in the context that each person is something greater than his or her current opinions. If a person is totally identified with their current opinions, that person is underestimating herself or himself. Challenging someone’s opinions can mean asking that person to look at life more carefully or more fully and thereby become more completely the person she or he actually is. Challenging someone’s opinions, if done from the perspective of treasuring authenticity in myself and in others, can mean true respect for others. Affirming other people’s opinions no matter what the opinions are is not respect, it is co-dependence; it is coddling immaturities because you do not have the courage or skill to ask others to grow up.

The relativists are also partly right about the need for peace among all the religious perspectives on earth. Every religious expression is a finite reality; therefore, it is not absolute. It cannot be the standard by which every other religious expression is judged. The Christian way of coming at Spirit is not intrinsically better than the Hindu way or the Buddhist way. At their best, all these long-standing religious traditions have great gifts of Spirit expression for all of us. Toleration of other religious groups is a living necessity as well as a mode of respect. Nevertheless, the relativists are wrong (that is, inauthentic) in assuming that there is no way to judge specific religious expressions as good or bad. This is a hard question for everyone in our era: what is it that makes good Christianity good or bad Christianity bad? What is it that makes good Buddhism good or bad Buddhism bad?

Adequate answers to such questions can only be found if we raise an even deeper question: what is the essential purpose of religion in human life? What is religion and why do humans do it? Let me put this very simply: the purpose of all religion is to express Spirit. All religious expressions are finite inventions by human beings. Good religion is a finite expression of Spirit. Bad religion is a finite expression of fleeing away from Spirit. And Spirit itself is a relationship with the Infinite. So Spirit, being an un-finite Actuality, can judge all religious expressions as good religion or bad religion. So what do we mean by "Spirit?" This question is key for understanding deeply the authority of authenticity.

Precisely because all religions are finite, all religious expressions are open to deadly perversions. A religion which came into being to express Spirit can be turned into its opposite—into a religious expression which is running away from Spirit, suppressing Spirit, twisting Spirit into something we might even call "demonically evil." So the criticism of bad religion is the beginning point for all good religion. Thus a proper religious peace or tolerance cannot mean the renunciation of all religious criticism. On the importance of religious criticism, the following words of Jesus, as recorded in Luke’s gospel, are a stinging challenge:

"Do you think that I have come to bring peace on earth? No, I tell you, not peace, but division! For from now on there will be five people divided against each other in one house, three against two, and two against three. It is going to be father against son, and son against father, and mother against daughter, and daughter against mother, mother-in-law against her daughter-in-law, and daughter-in-law against mother-in-law!" Luke: 13:51-53

Clearly, anyone who protects their own personal opinions from the always active assault of the truth is not a follower of Jesus. Anyone who permissively accepts whatever opinion other people hold and smilingly gives them "space" to hold that opinion, is not a follower of Jesus.

But how, screams out the relativist in us all, can we experience this "Spirit truth" and thus experience a proper means of judging all finite religious expressions, seeing their goodness and/or their badness?

Looking Deeper at the Authority of Authenticity

Suppose we begin by noticing that life simply has an actuality. In the realm of objective truth as pursued by the scientific method, we assume an actuality that judges one scientific theory to be better than another. We can agree that all scientific theories are approximate and partial and will one day be replaced by better theories. Nevertheless, we do not, if we are good scientists, affirm that one scientific theory is just as good as another. No, Einsteinian physics is better than Newtonian physics because it interprets our actual, factual experience better.

A few people do misunderstand Einsteinian relativity to mean that any scientific theory is as good as another, but this was not Einstein’s view. Einstein saw that all measurements had to be taken relative to an observer who was part of the physical system, but this did not mean that there is no objective reality. Einstein was asserting that this view of nature, which encompasses the role of the observer, is more true to life than the view that the human observer is looking at the physical world from some abstract rational space.

In the arena of religion and ethics, however, many more people hold the view that everything is relative. In popular politics, for example, we often hear it said that "Everyone is entitled to his or her own opinion."

It is true that in the political, religious, or ethical realms we are not dealing with objective truth that can be verified by outwardly observable public experiments. We are dealing with an inward truthfulness. In religion and ethics, as in many forms of depth psychology, we are dealing with a living human individual telling the truth or not telling the truth about his or her own subjective experiences.

Let me begin with an elementary example. Your cat dies, and you say, "I feel sad." That is authentic because it is truthful. You really do feel sad. Then again you might be lying to yourself. Perhaps you are not sad after all, but simply relieved to be rid of that pesky animal. If this is the case, then "relieved" is your authenticity. Or maybe you are both sad and relieved. But something is the case. It is not a matter of arbitrary opinion. And no outside authority can tell you how you feel about your cat’s death.

The authority of authenticity involves actualities even deeper than how you feel. Authenticity has to do with severe judgments about this or that sense of reality. In your personal relationships with life, something is the case and everything else is not the case. You are either in despair over this aspect of your life or you are not in despair over this aspect of your life. What is the case? What is the authentic truth going on in your life at this time and place?

Actual life provides the authority for the authority of authenticity. The writer of the gospel of John was very clear about this. He puts into the mouth of his fictitious Jesus these words: "I do nothing on my own authority, but in all that I say, I have been taught by my Infinite Parent. This Authority who sent me is present with me, and has not left me alone; for I always do what is acceptable to this Authority."— a slight rewording of John 9:28-30.

So if I, like John’s literary Jesus, am to live by the authority of authenticity, this means that I am to be obedient to the Infinite which I am experiencing moment by moment in my actual life. All my opinions, all my religious expressions are to be constructed by me to express as obediently as I can my actual relationship with the Infinite. And if I do this in pristine truthfulness, then you can hear me with your own pristine truthfulness.

Of course, if at any point, we are lying about our own experience, we will not be able to hear the truthfulness of an authentic speaker. We will want to reject him or her as an arrogant violator of our opinions. But if we can listen beyond our own opinions to our own truthfulness about our own experience, then the words of the authentic speaker can take root in us. This reception may cost us our current opinions, but we gain some fresh aspect of our own true greatness. If, on the other hand, we insist on identifying with our current finite opinions rather than with our own truthful relationship with Infinite Actuality, then we will be in opposition to any authentic speaker who challenges our opinions.

So what does it mean to be a relationship with the Infinite Actuality? Infinite Actuality is not someone’s opinion; it is THAT to which each atheist, each relativist, as well as each religious practitioner must bow in obedience. Infinite Actuality cannot be dismissed as a mere opinion held by religious people. Relationship with the Infinite is as certain as death and as plain as being here. The Infinite is precisely that mysterious power that issues forth all that exists and receives all finite existences back again into Infinity’s boundless tomb. The Infinite is a Fullness that confronts us with possibilities we cannot yet even imagine. The Infinite is a Void that gobbles up all entities, clearing the decks for the next round of creative emergence. The Infinite is the Radical Demand to live openly to that Fullness and that Void.

Jesus bore witness that this always Present Infinity could be his, your, and my true home (our parentage, our kingdom). We can be at home with the Infinite every single moment of our lives. The Infinite, Jesus said, is like a parent waiting for a lost child to return home from the land of unreality. And when that child returns, the parent runs to meet her, puts rings on her fingers, clothes on her body, kills the fatted calf, and throws a huge party. When another loyal but moralistic family member objects to this seeming indulgence, the parent simply says "My precious child who was lost has now been found."

When you come home to the Infinite, the Infinite simply greets you with, "Welcome home!" "Welcome home, daughter." "Welcome home, son." Someone precious has returned home. This, Jesus claims, is simply the truth. In other words, Jesus is saying, "This is not my opinion, rather I have received this saying from the highest authority. The Infinite told me so." And I agree, not because Jesus said so, but because whenever I have returned home to my Infinite relatedness, I have found everything just as Jesus said. There is no punishment meted out for my grim and despairing trips into unreality. Those trips were themselves the punishment. Returning home is like a great Welcome. My whole past is forgiven. My whole future is open. All of life is suddenly completely good in spite of all its challenges and difficulties. My entire actual person is completely accepted in spite of all my longings and addictions for unreality. This is the truth. To enjoy this truth, I have to actively accept it as the truth. I have to actively live it out. I have to resist the temptation to reject it. But this Infinite Welcome is the truth. I do not have to make it the truth by some effort of my own opinionatedness. I simply have to surrender to the Infinite Actuality of this Welcome Home being the truth.

In conclusion, I want to underline these two themes: (1) The authority of authenticity enters into the various conflicts between human opinions, valuing some opinions over others. This illuminates how the authority of authenticity can be our foundation for choosing all our ethical values and ethical perspectives. (2) And we must also remember that the authority of authenticity is beyond the realm of human opinions. Authenticity is not a worldview or a rational construction of any sort. Authenticity is not one opinion fighting against other opinions. Authenticity does not have to do with being tolerant of all opinions or hostile toward all opinions. The authority of authenticity simply speaks the truth of our own inward states of being.

And such truthfulness turns out to be a very deep well of wisdom, for it includes our being truthful about our relationship with Infinite Actuality. And, let us recall, this "relationship with Infinite Actuality" is the essence of all good religion. This mysterious "relationship with Infinite Actuality" includes all those inward states of being we call Spirit. And it is the actuality of Spirit that validates or invalidates every religious dogma, practice, or ethical teaching.

If you understand this Spirit actuality, then you understand what there is to know about the authority of authenticity. You know how to see for yourself that the scribes of authoritarian religion are off the mark. You know how to see for yourself that the relativists of no authority are off the mark. You know how to identify with Jesus in his being obedient to the Awesome Infinite Silence. You know how to speak, not on your own authority, but with authority that is backed by THAT which is the FIRST and the LAST and ONLY actual authority.

The authority of authenticity is Infinitely simple—it is merely telling the truth about your own inward experience of the Infinite. And yet the authority of authenticity is Infinitely complex—it means the shocking capacity to see your way through the validity or the invalidity of every religious and ethical expression in the entire history of the human species. What a privilege to be able to speak only of what we know and yet to have insight into the meaning of everything! What a blessing to have been given the capacity to speak with the authority of authenticity, an authority that is not like that of the scribes!